Thursday, June 23, 2005

Eastern Exposure

An eastern breeze woos me forward as I write you. When my ferry reaches land I will be in Turkey and half way through my sacred trek from Rome to Jerusalem. Since I wrote you last, my journey along the ancient Roman pilgrim routes has taken me through Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

While I set out to learn more about God, the world and my faith, I should have suspected that I couldn’t escape learning about myself as well. Conversing with people from diverse cultures and traveling along the Mediterranean with a double-wide backpack strapped around me in a sea of small-thighed women has caused me to look at a few identity issues along the way.

However, I am trying to cut down on public narcissism. So I will write to about others’ identity issues – specifically the hopes and struggles of the countries along the pilgrim path I visited during this latest leg of travels.

Albania is in a curious stage of rediscovering itself. It emerged from an isolationism rivaling North Korea just 15 years ago. Now a transformation is taking place: the populace is allowed to drive, the former dictator’s mausoleum has been converted into a bowling alley/concert venue and the mayor of the capital city, Tirana, has painted the communist buildings purple, red, yellow and orange with geometric designs. However, the rediscovery of religious roots is requiring more than fresh paint for the facades of souls. Albanian nationalism remains the popular religion of the day. Albanians are said to be 10% Catholic; 20% Orthodox; 70% Muslim and 100% atheist.

Albania has an extensive history of religious alignment with whoever is in power. However, it was once a significant place on the Via Egnatia pilgrim path. Paul and Timothy, important pastors in the New Testament era, are said to have traveled there. During my visit I met people who have set aside their nationalism to discover a relationship with God transcending their ethnic heritage. Among them was Lida. She is a beautiful woman in her early forties who was raised Muslim but has recently become a Christian. She says her country has failed to hope because they didn’t know the real meaning and experience of God’s love. For Lida the one thing Albania needs is God, then it will rediscover itself fully.

According to my chats with elderly people in Macedonia, their country seems to be mourning the loss of its former identity. I met Christopher, a gregarious and slightly disheveled small boat captain in his sixties, along the boardwalk in Ohrid. He spoke of his regard for the former dictator, Tito. He exclaimed that when Tito was in power the economy thrived and people felt safe, free from the fear of being robbed. Christopher associates democracy with a bully-capitalism, which promotes deviant ways to make fast money. He speaks of the rise of the mafia and sees democracy as bringing crime up and employment down.

Despite Christopher’s laments for the good old days of dictatorship, he says he loves America. He learned his English by watching American movies and attributes his passion for Christ to his encounter with American missionaries a decade ago. Christopher lives in the region where the early Christians developed the Cyrillic alphabet and trained missionaries to reach the Slavic peoples. But he says it took people from the States to help know God in a special way.

Greece seems to be grappling with its own sense of religion and nationalism. For centuries to be Greek has meant one is a Greek Orthodox Christian. However, I spoke with youth who say the church doesn’t feel relevant for them. I met a lovely 23-year-old named Matilda who believes in God but spoke of being caught up in the pressures of fashion and image. She contemplates the struggle between faith and materialism, but she said materialism is the path most traveled by those her age.

However, the gap between this generation and the church has not been completely lost. While I was in Meteora, Greece I met Vaslis, a monk around my age, who described God by using the paintings in the church. He showed me an image of hell and heaven. He said that hell was a place where no one knew who each other was, all identity was lost. Heaven was where people’s personalities were in full color by the light of God’s love.

By encountering people of faith in Albania, Macedonia and Greece revealed my own struggles and hopes. As my identity issues continue to be exposed, my prayer is that I journey through it in the light of God’s love. I’ll keep you posted on the learning as I travel east through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.